We Can Charge Phones Wirelessly. What About Electric Vehicles? Resonant Link May Have an Answer

Source: NPR Marketplace

The biggest obstacle to an all-electric-vehicle future always seems to be the batteries.

Some of their components are hard to source, they’re expensive to make and they don’t have enough capacity for some drivers’ needs. Plus, many of them in use right now can’t be recycled at the end of their life.

But some companies and researchers think the future would be less reliant on big batteries if we could develop cost-effective ways to charge vehicles wirelessly.

One of those companies is Resonant Link. At its headquarters deep in an office park in South Burlington, Vermont, the company’s verification manager, Jonathan Chia, wheels a cart covered in coils and wires — a prototype, really — toward a sleek, black pad with what looks like a neon-green bull’s-eye in the center.

“So, it’s ready to charge on the screen. I’m gonna wheel this in,” Chia says as a screen above the pad flashes on. It reads, “Waiting for alignment,” then “Preparing to charge.” A  cooling fan on the pad whirs to life, and, according to that screen, electricity is flowing to the cart across nearly a foot of empty space. Though it’s pretty sensitive if anything other than the cart gets too close, like my microphone.

“Oop, you were a little close,” Chia says, as the fan abruptly shuts off. 

“That’s a demonstration of our novel foreign object detection system,” chimes in Chia’s colleague, electrical engineer Skyler Cornell, as I step back and the fan switches back on.

The team is still working out kinks, but Resonant Link hopes this wireless charging technology, which uses a magnetic field to transfer energy, could eventually revolutionize the way we power lots of different vehicles — starting in those giant facilities where our online shopping orders are filled.

“If you imagine an Amazon or a Walmart fulfillment center, or maybe a warehouse today, they have these aisles — which are called racks — and vehicles work up and down one of these aisles,” said Resonant Link CEO Grayson Zulauf.

Those vehicles are often electric forklifts, and they spend a lot of downtime plugged into a wall charging, Zulauf said. So, Resonant Link wants to install its wireless chargers along the aisles where those forklifts work.

“It’ll power that forklift when it pulls up from the side,” Zulauf said. The forklift makes a bunch of stops as it picks up and drops off items. “And as the forklift goes up and down this aisle moving goods, where it already stops, it gets power.”

The idea is those frequent power boosts will let the forklift work 24/7, Zulauf said. He said Resonant Link has raised $20 million so far for its work, which also includes making wireless charging systems for medical devices. The company said it’s begun shipping chargers to some leading forklift manufacturers.

Along with other efforts around the country, the company is betting that frequent bursts of wireless charge can work for other kinds of vehicles too — ones that follow consistent routes and make lots of stops. Think buses and delivery trucks, said Andrew Meintz with the National Renewable Energy Lab.

“Throughout the day, the overall charge that it picks up at each of these stops allows us to reduce the battery capacity of the vehicle, so we can reduce weight and improve the efficiency of the vehicle,” Meintz said.

The same technology could even power semitrucks by embedding a bunch of wireless chargers in interstates; vehicles could charge up continuously while driving.

“So it ends up being much cheaper to build infrastructure that everyone uses, rather than pay money for lots of large batteries,” said Tallis Blalack, who until recently was the managing director of a federally funded roadway electrification research center called Aspire.

There are pilot projects experimenting with electrified roads in Detroit, Utah, Florida and overseas in Sweden. But if the idea of charging your car while driving on an interstate like you’re on a Mario Kart racetrack sounds a bit futuristic, it kind of still is.

“So the limitations are, a lot of it is policy,” Blalack said.

To make electrified roads a reality, transportation departments would have to install wireless chargers in them. Then they’d have to get electricity to those roads. And there’s the open question of how drivers who use that electricity would pay for it. Ultimately, it’ll take several levels of government to make all of that happen.

“The technology can do it,” Blalack said. “Can we get the political alignment to make it happen is the real question.”

A bill introduced in the U.S. House this year would give $250 million in grants to wireless charging projects, though it’s still waiting for a jolt of power to get out of committee. 

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